Last night I was watching the Edmonton Oilers play the Colorado Avalanche, when a particular shift caught my eye. Something called a “Teemu Hartikainen” on the Oilers had the puck behind the Avalanche net, and was protecting it like a basketball player backing an opponent in under the basket, using his body as a shield for the puck. He never got there, and actually, the defender did well to keep the Oilers’ forward “on the paint” as they say, but he and his linemates did spend the majority of the shift in the Avs end. That was likely all they wanted.

For a fourth line player (that’s what he is on the Oil for now, anyway), that is basically the equivalent of hitting a home-run (I guess that makes a goal a grand slam). Your job as a low-liner is essentially to not get scored on, to lay the body, and to play well enough to let the team’s offensive dynamos rest. Fourth liners shoot from long distances and poor angles when given the chance because a shot in their stat column looks good, (…put on a Don Cherry-esque Canadian accent here) and good things happen when you get the puck to the net, boys and girls! Also, coaches like those simple plays from their worker bees.

For a skill player on the bench, watching these successful grinder shifts can bring mixed emotions, because you know what’s coming: reward minutes. Most forwards would rather play until they’re ragged, 20, 22, 25 minutes or whatever, so they can stay in the flow, get more opportunities and never get cold. Because Hartinkainen and his linemates were getting their job done, you know the minutes are about to be spread around like house hockey. It makes sense (to a degree) from a coach’s standpoint, that if your third and fourth line are having success you should play them more, but sometimes they lose track of why those guys are on the fourth line in the first place, and the reality is that they’re meeting awfully low standards to begin with. Most low-liners can’t control the play consistently, and if you over-use them, you will eventually regret it. Yet…it happens.

Last night, the Edmonton Oilers handily controlled the hockey game, sporting leads of 2-0 after the first and 3-0 after the second, so their coach, Ralph Krueger, did the right thing: he spread those minutes. No need to rundown your top guys when you’re up, after all. No player saw single digit ice time, which is pretty incredible, and only two players hit 20 minutes (and barely – Justin Schultz, 20:21, Ladislav Smid, 20:42), which is even more eye-catching. Hartikainen and his crew were around 13-14 minutes each due to the score and their performance (Hartikainen had a little more TOI than Nail Yakupov, in fact, which is odd), and everything went peachy.

That said, this is a point to look out for during this NHL season. Krueger did it right last night because of the circumstance, but I don’t feel like Hartinkainen’s ice would’ve been much different had the score been 2-2-. He was playing well, and getting used. When coach’s see a great shift from the bottom lines, they want to show their whole team that “good ‘ol work ethic will get ‘er done!” and they give them too many minutes. Your best players are considered your best players for a reason, yet in the heat of the battle, some coaches get caught up trying to show their other guys “if you get your job done, you will play.”

That’s not always the best thing.

John Tortorella is notorious for this. “We’re losing, so Marian Gaborik (or whoever) is getting benched,” and he’ll play more plugs. Goal scoring is a unique talent, and you can’t guarantee that over the course of every game opportunities will come, or specifically, that they’ll come early on. You can’t just bench your stars because your team isn’t scoring – their expectations are much higher than that of the grinder, and barring some egregious gaffe, you need to continue to play them.

I’m talking about this, because fans are quick to say “I’m glad our team is playing Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb more (as an example), they’ve been working hard and deserve it,” despite the fact that while it processes fine in their head (hard work yay!) it ignores the fact that it’s not best for the team (god-given talent boo).

So in a situation like Krueger and the Oilers’ last night, I can dig spreading the minutes around. It’s when teams aren’t scoring and they start playing their low-liners more than their struggling skill guys that I get frustrated. Too many hockey coaches operate on the principle of “rewards,” like there’s going to be some Pavlovian response that suddenly makes everyone play well all the time, and they forget that sometimes, just playing your best talents and getting out of the way is their best bet.

Comments (11)

  1. Great article, it’s exactly how I feel. Much easier for a fourth liner to gain the praise of the fans and the coach by keeping the pick in the offensive end and playing hard not necessarily getting a scoring chance.
    I remember watching Brett Hull and you wouldn’t see him for like 2 periods even though he had like 16 or 17 minutes after 2 periods and then all of sudden bang he scores 2 goals in the 3rd. Why I was happy to see Dale Hunter leave as the Caps coach, he really impacted Ovie and to me you keep throwing him out there because he does break through and when he does t’s for a goal or two and it’s holding the puck against the boards.

  2. Well, yes and no – It depends on how severely the coach has stratified his line-combinations.

    If one has, say, a Steve Downie playing with a St Louis/Stamkos pairing, the theory becomes a bit more gray.

    Though, perhaps, Downie in his own right may only be (in a proverbial vacuum or in a scrimmage or on a stat-sheet) a third or fourth-liner, in the context of being a (regular) digger/muscle for the set-up man and finisher combo, he may see (according to your principles) an inordinate amount of ice-time.

    Not to put too fine a point on it: It’s whatever works in optimizing scoring (and wins.) And the better a coach can balance personnel to roll four scoring-lines, the more likely that such a (classical) TOI structure goes out the window.

  3. What about mixing the lines up? I have long thought that Datsyuk and Zetterberg are better combined than separated. Separated they are both 8′s, maybe 9′s. But together they are 11′s.

    Sorta off topic, but close enough I thought it worth the comment.

    • Just as a general note I wanted to make: I’m cool with a guy on the third or fourth line getting bumped up to play with better players, especially if one of the top-6 guys are struggling. In Vancouver, it’s how Burrows, Kesler and possibly Kassian have come to be successful – they played well and were given a shot to play with better players. I like that.

  4. If you watched the game you’d have seen nail yakupov with 2 brutal giveaways in the first period. as a result he barely received any ES time. oilers were lucky dubnyk was hot and bailed them out or else it would likely have been 2-0 aves early on. not to mention his 3rd period stopping 23 shots.. in any case harski is a very talented grinder and actually led the OKC barons in scoring while he was down there despite being drafted behind “expected offensive dynamos” like tyler pitlick and curtis hamilton

  5. I think this also depends on what minutes a player is getting. A fair bit of Hartikainen’s ice time last night was on the powerplay, which wasn’t so much a reward, necessarily, as it was the acknowledgement that he’s really good at planting himself in the blue paint and not letting a couple dozen cross-checks to the back knock him out of the way while he screens the goalie. I’d also say that Yakupov wasn’t really on his game at all last night. He didn’t manage a shot on goal until he scored that empty-netter at the end (which does nice things for his shooting percentage, I guess).

    Plus, given the slightly condensed schedule, I’d say the more you can spread minutes around, the better. Just don’t go full Hunter and decide to bench your skill players as soon as you take a lead, and then wonder why the other team keeps tying it up.

  6. On Teemu getting more Ice Time than Nail Yakupov last night:

    Yak had a tough game. His first shift he had a couple bad turnovers. Also he narrowly avoided a hit that would have had hospital visit written all over it. His next shift he couldn’t get the puck off his stick fast enough.

    So Krueger sat him down. Tough night as a rookie. You’d be worried about his confidence after a game like that. As luck would have it though Krueger did put Yak out on a late in the game power-play where Yak was able to score a empty netter.

  7. If a skilled player isn’t scoring due to a lack of effort (not skating hard, not getting pressure on the puck, bad decisions with the puck) than he has every right to get benched. Now if he’s not scoring but creating chances and such, he should never be on the bench. That makes little to no sense period.

  8. Lindy Ruff does this all the time.

    • Lindy ruff may be a great coach to make two way players; but he doesn’t know how to get the most offense out of his skill guys. Great vanek can play the PK, but can we get him quality ice time where he can score instead?

  9. When he was with the Rangers Tom Renney would do this all the time. They would be down by a goal in the last two minutes and he’d have Ryan Hollweg, Blair Betts and Colton Orr on the ice. It was brutal.

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